Forgotten people: The Kunama of Eritrea and Ethiopia

Report
from Refugees International
Published on 18 Feb 2004
Why are the Kunama Forgotten?
The Kunama are one of the smallest ethnic groups in Eritrea, making up only 2 percent of the population. Most of the estimated 100,000 Kunama live in the remote and isolated area between the Gash and Setit Rivers near the border of Ethiopia. Access to the Kunama is difficult, and very little first-hand information about their situation is available. Although other groups have intruded on the Kunama and their land for decades, the Ethiopian/Eritrean war (1998-2000) accelerated their problems and forced some 4,000 to flee their homes. As a result they became refugees in Ethiopia, in the tense area just over the border with Eritrea and in close proximity to the contested border village of Badme.

The People and the Land

The Kunama speak a Nilo-Saharan language unrelated to the dominant languages in Eritrea and Ethiopia. They are believed to have been the pre-historic inhabitants of this region. Although some Kunama still practice traditional beliefs, most are converts to either Christianity (Roman Catholic and Protestant) or Islam. Formerly nomadic, today they are farmers and pastoralists. The fertile plains of the Gash-Setit region where the Kunama live are sometimes referred to as the "breadbasket of Eritrea." Other ethnic groups, however, have invaded the land the Kunama traditionally possessed. The official policy of the government of Eritrea is that all land is state property and the government encourages large commercial farms, most of which are owned by members of the dominant Tigrinya group. It has also been suggested that the Eritrean government has permitted settlement on the land that the Kunama left, including relocation of ex-soldiers, refugees returning from Sudan, and persons displaced during the war with Ethiopia.

Humanitarian Conditions

Most of the Kunama refugees left in 2000 when the Ethiopian army withdrew from Eritrea. As of late December 2003, there were 4,141 Kunama refugees in Ethiopia, living in the temporary Wa'ala Nihibi camp, only 20 kilometers from the Eritrean border. The temporary camp is located in a barren desert area of the western zone in the Tigray National Regional State. Many of the makeshift huts that the refugees occupied were burned during fires in 2002 and 2003. Shortages of water and deficiencies in sanitation have also been reported.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recommended that the camp be relocated to a safer and more secure location further from the Eritrean border. The Tigray Region government in Ethiopia proposed various new locations for the camp, but due to poor road access and lack of water resources, they were considered unsuitable by UNHCR. Efforts are currently under way to prepare water infrastructure at a new location.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, the new site, Shimelba, is roughly 60 kilometers south of Wa'ala Nihibi by road. The relocation of the refugees is contingent on the development of water resources. A humanitarian aid agency told Refugees International the wells have been drilled, and the move had been planned for late March or early April 2004. There had also been reports that the move was put on hold due to lack of UNHCR funding, however, UNHCR told RI that funds had been allocated but not yet released.

UNHCR has begun discussions with the governments of Ethiopia and Eritrea concerning the possible voluntary return of the Kunama to Eritrea. Repatriation would be the ideal, most durable solution for the refugees; however, there are no concrete plans in place at this time. Eritrean officials insist that the refugees would be welcomed back to Eritrea, but refugees are skeptical of this claim. Many of the Kunama refugees fled Eritrea to avoid having their sons conscripted into the army. "I came here to save myself and my family," one refugee told the UN. "Until things change I do not want to return." Resettlement in Ethiopia does not appear to be a viable option for the Kunama, and few of the refugees have made efforts to seek relocation in a third country.

Ethiopia suffers from a severe food deficit. The UN World Food Program (WFP) started providing monthly food rations in the Wa'ala Nihibi camp in September 2000. A major food shortage is predicted for 2004 that will affect the Kunama and other refugees in Ethiopia. Last week, however, the agency reported that "the Kunama refugees, like all other refugees, will have their rations reduced starting March 2004 so that the food stocks on hand will last longer. WFP will reinstate full rations as soon as adequate new pledges are received."

Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:

  • The international community redouble its efforts to improve and monitor the humanitarian and human rights situation of the Kunama people in Eritrea.

  • The government of Ethiopia, the UNHCR and its implementing partners, as well as other non-governmental agencies, work together to facilitate completion of the Shimelba camp and assist the Kunama refugees to move there as soon as possible.

  • International donors pledge necessary funds for food, and release allocated support for camp relocation.

  • A more permanent solution be identified for the Kunama refugees in Ethiopia, since most apparently do not wish to return to Eritrea at this time.
Emily LoDolce is an RI Intern, and Larry Thompson is Senior Advocate for Refugees International.